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‘Exciting discovery’ could potentially eradicate HIV from human cells

Thursday, July 24, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA — Researchers at Temple University announced this week they have completely eliminated a dormant strain of HIV embedded in human cells, an advance that researchers on the project called a possible “game changer” by raising hopes that science is closer to not only suppressing, but actually curing, the virus that causes AIDS.

The researchers say they found a way to eradicate HIV-1 genes, which inserts itself into an infected individual’s own DNA, by using a kind of “molecular scissors” to cut HIV out of human cells.

“When deployed, a combination of a DNA-snipping enzyme called a nuclease and a targeting strand of RNA called a guide RNA (gRNA) hunt down the viral genome and excise the HIV-1 DNA.

“From there, the cell’s gene repair machinery takes over, soldering the loose ends of the genome back together – resulting in virus-free cells.”

The HIV removal experiment was conducted in cells in the lab, and the scissors did not work on every cell, so the approach still remains a long way from use in the clinic.

But the findings could someday lead to a cure that would give the more than 33 million people worldwide who are living with HIV the ability to drop a life-long regimen of antiretroviral drugs.

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In the U.S., the rate of HIV diagnoses fell by one-third each year within the last decade, although the only demographic in which diagnoses increased was young gay and bisexual men. An estimated 1.1 million Americans are thought to be infected, though many don’t know it.

“This is one important step on the path toward a permanent cure for AIDS,” said Kamel Khalili, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Neuroscience at Temple. “It’s an exciting discovery, but it’s not yet ready to go into the clinic. It’s a proof of concept that we’re moving in the right direction.”

The results of the study were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and have piqued the interest of the 14,000 scientists participating in the International AIDS Conference in Australia this week.

“There is no demonstration yet that it has worked in a person, so caution is appropriate,” Clyde Crumpacker, an AIDS researcher at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “But it is a very intriguing paper about a possible strategy for an HIV cure. This is a timely ‘proof of concept’ paper.”

More on the discovery in this video from Temple University:

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